Every day in April, the 800-odd Van Gujjar families in Haridwar’s Gaindikhata area would dump 5,000 litres of milk down the drain. The lockdown had been hard on most, harder still on the forest-dwelling community with no other means of livelihood.
In April, one member of the Van Gujjar community tested positive for Covid-19. The entire settlement was sealed as a containment zone for about a month. They could not step out and sell milk, which goes bad quickly. While they waited it out, 98 people from Gaindikhata who had attended the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi and elsewhere, were identified. The Covid stigma got worse. And while the containment zone was unsealed, customers shut their doors on the Van Gujjars.
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“They said the milk may be infected. People took advantage of us. We even sold milk at Rs 15 a litre. In all this, some started asking if we are members of Tablighi Jamaat. We follow Sufi Islam. But it didn’t seem to matter,” said Muhammad Alam, a member of the community.
The pastoralist tribe, which lives near the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, is entirely dependent on its buffalo herds for survival. So while they couldn’t change what they did to make a living, they could change where they did it. So in June, some of the younger people decided to start exploring markets further away.
“Travelling was restricted — sometimes we’d face lathicharge when anyone heard we were from Gaindikhata. So we tried to let others know by word of mouth,” said Muhammad Gulam, who runs a wholesale milk business at Gaindikhata. “It took some effort and a lot of time, but we slowly started getting customers in places much further away — Rishikesh (about 40 km) and Roorkee (about 50 km).”
“We are selling milk at the correct prices of Rs 50-60 a litre again. We have new customers, business is brisk. And this seems to have encouraged our earlier customers too, who are all getting around to buying milk from us again,” said Alam.
The owner of one of the largest dairies in Rishikesh, Sardar Puran Kainth, said even he harboured some apprehensions initially. “Since the lockdown began, we had not been sure about where to procure our milk from. But things are back to normal now. We will keep up our business with the Van Gujjars,” he said.
(This story is part of a series in association with Facebook. Facebook has no editorial role in this story.)